Kids' stuff

Television - Andrew Billenon two dispiriting views of childhood in Britain

There is something about the tremulous sanctimony of our leader's pronouncements that makes them peculiarly vulnerable to ironic juxtaposition. For a decade Margaret Thatcher was hobbled by her "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony" blarney, but almost anything Tony Blair says can be used against him. In New Britain on the Couch, Oliver James used a diatribe on educational standards to frame his attack on over-competitive public schools. Now Kate Blewett and Brian Woods have used a "visionary" Blair speech from a year ago ("Look at our country through the eyes of a child . . . ") to introduce their important, bravely scheduled and comprehensively depressing documentary, Eyes of a Child (BBC1, Monday).

Few, if any, of the children Blewett and Woods found went to school, but their insights into human psychology were little short of scholarly. In Sheffield, Steve, a podgy 14 year old with the slow-eyed features of a retired boxer, and Craig, his 11-year-old brother, were discussing how to make parents less violent. Craig suggested a five-pint drinking limit. Steve ruled that this was impractical, since they went out specifically "to get bladdered". His recommendation was to run away, because running away at least made adults think. In Bradford, two twin girls agreed that burglary was a form of addiction. And addiction was clearly something they were experts in. Kayley - or was it Becky? - chattered her teeth and shivered to mime the symptoms of drug withdrawal. She is eight years old.

Eleven-year-old David in Leicester reckoned he had been expelled from 19 schools, "a very lot of times", anyhow. He scoffed at the naivety of asking whether he had ever been arrested. But his bravado slipped when his mother kicked him out. "She's happy for me," he explained. "She's happy for herself anyway. She reckons I've ruined her life. Strange, isn't it?" His logic was as follows. His mum's new boyfriend had hit him. David had told his probation officer. Now boyfriend was up before the Crown Court. QED David had ruined her life. If there's a sadder scene on television this year than the parental front door closing on David's clenched face, I do not wish to see it.

The stories these children told so brilliantly sounded remarkable, but the statistics that punctuated the programme insisted they were anything but. Six hundred children are excluded from school, 350,000 are left alone at home and 50 are separated from their families at their own parents' request every day in this country. These children did not know the figures, but they saw with 20/20 vision that they already had more past behind them than future in front. David observed: "If I could just change my past behaviour, if I could do that, then I'd be the happiest person on the face of the earth." Becky - or was it Kayley? - suggested that ideally Blair should "make everyone forget about what they had done, forget about the past".

But what can be done? It is clearly not simply a matter of income, although the programme-makers were too polite to say so. The twins may have lived in a slum, but David and his siblings passed their days doing their best to wreck a home that looked almost glossy. Crawling over shiny work surfaces, boiling kettles, squirting mayonnaise over one another's heads, they looked more like the Rugrats than economic victims. The poverty was all in the low levels of parental responsibility in a class that no longer feels it has a say over its life. (The connection between family planning and future well-being, for instance, has become unlinked.) Watching them all, you could understand why Keith Joseph once furrowed his brow menacingly over the fertility of the underclass and why Polly Toynbee in the Guardian recently came on like a sales rep for abortion. The programme should have been followed by a studio discussion if it didn't want us to think this way.

In any other week, Twockers (Sunday, BBC2) would have been an event, too. This 45-minute drama also dealt with criminal teenagers, "twockers" being street slang deriving from the legal acronym for taking a car without the owner's consent. The innovation of the film was that it was made by documentary-makers who had got their subjects to play-act versions of their own lives. Thus the hopeless Trevor was played by Trevor Wademan and the object of his affection, Amie, by Amie Oie - although whether Amie in real life was pregnant with another man's child we could only guess. The script was improvised, the dialogue even lapsing into a nonsense dialect of the children's own, but there was clearly an authorial voice guiding it. Trevor, for instance, was told by his friend Steve to "spark up"; later he doused himself with four-star and stood in front of a bonfire: "If a spark hits, I'm dead." It was a compelling film, well in the tradition of Ken Loach's Kes, and in its insistence that its young subjects' inner lives were more interesting than the social problems they represented it was faultlessly humane. Next to Eyes of a Child, however, it seemed riddled with unearned optimism.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics